The Boston Phoenix
December 4 - 11, 1997

[Dance Reviews]

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Dance fever

The ART swings with The Bacchae

by Carolyn Clay

THE BACCHAE, By Euripides. Translated by Paul Schmidt. Directed by François Rochaix. Scenic design by Jean-Claude Maret. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Movement by Amy Spencer and Richard Colton. Lighting by Michael Chybowski. Sound by Christopher Walker. With Michael Edo Keane, Alvin Epstein, Karen MacDonald, Leslie Beatty, Debora Cahn, Gin Hammond, Courtney Rackley, Vessela Stoyanova, Rachael Warren, Tricia Williams, Will LeBow, Benjamin Evett, Robert Ross, Dmetrius Conley-Williams, Stephen Rowe, and Randy Danson. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, in repertory through January 15.

The Bacchae As he demonstrated in the Eumenides finale of his Oresteia and in last season's finely calibrated The Wild Duck, American Repertory Theatre associate director François Rochaix likes to dance on the fence between tragedy and burlesque. It's a daredevil act and one he performs again with The Bacchae (in a clear, rhythmic, eloquently conversational new translation by Paul Schmidt). At the ART, Euripides's last great tragedy offers cataclysmic lighting and scenic effects including ashes that fall like a continual drizzle over the blackened tomb of Semele, a sound design that incorporates whoops and whispers of formal and improvised percussion, a searing moment of tragic recognition, and Alvin Epstein in a dress -- as Kadmos, founder of Thebes, going off to the Dionysian revels looking for all the world like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

The Bacchae is among the most primal of the Greek tragedies -- the story of wine and theater god Dionysos's return to his native Thebes, which has failed to recognize his divinity. Despite the thrall in which the attractive young god holds the city's women, who have taken to nearby Mount Kitharon to dance his praises, the young king (and Dionysos's first cousin), Pentheus, denies and insults the deity, who exacts a terrible revenge, causing Pentheus to be torn to bits by his own mother. In the view of Polish-born scholar Jan Kott, the play is a scapegoat staging of the ur-myth in which god is sacrificed and then ingested by man. From Dionysos to Jesus, it's just one long Last Supper! (Indeed, Schmidt's translation includes distinctly Christian imagery.) Nietzsche argued that the play reflects Euripides's late-life decampment to the Dionysian. And our own Age of Aquarius refashioned the play, in which the forces of repression are made to submit to those of religious and artistic ecstasy, as an endorsement of free love. At the ART, The Bacchae becomes, in the words of translator Schmidt, "a stunning take on what happens when you deny the irrational side of your mind. Particularly, it's about a man denying the feminine side of his nature and what the consequences of that can be."

Which is where the drag-show element comes in -- some of it legitimate, some not. In the exotic person of Michael Edo Keane, Dionysos shows up in Thebes -- accompanied by an action-cartoon whoosh and bang -- in a pleated corset that exposes his nipples and a skirt, golden dreadlocks (what Pentheus calls his "girly-curly hair") cascading to his waist. He is one smug, androgynous vamp of a god -- sort of a cross between Bo Derek and Mick Jagger. Indeed, he is given to posing, paparazzi-worthy smile at the ready, with his Asiatic-maenad groupies, the Chorus.

Later, Dionysos tricks the gender-insecure Pentheus into drag before leading him to the slaughter. But there is no legitimate reason I can see for getting those conciliatory ancients, Kadmos and the blind seer Tiresias, up in drag; bacchants are not required to dress as women (Pentheus does so to infiltrate an all-female rite), merely to don the acolyte's vestment of a fawn skin and carry the ivy-tipped staff, the thyrsos. Rochaix wishes, no doubt, to emphasize the comic pathos of the feeble elders paying their boogying respects to the new god in town. Indeed, tottering off to the mountain hand in hand, the pair do recall flower-bedecked Lear and blind Gloucester in the field near Dover. (And Will LeBow's Tiresias is very convincingly blind.) But tarting them up in coral frocks, with a lipsticked Epstein kibitzing like some Beckett-esque Quentin Crisp in ballet slippers, tips the balance too much toward farce.

Similarly, the production's take on Pentheus as an "adolescent despot" is intriguing but overbroad. Benjamin Evett is an uptight, ponytailed boy heading an entourage -- something between the Secret Service and a gang -- of similarly attired young men in olive suits and (well, it is a Greek tragedy) sandals. Dionysos, he sneers, is a "crazy, long-haired Asiatic who wears perfume and spends his time with girls." Clearly, this is a young man with gender issues, pushed too early to power by grandfather Kadmos. (The Chorus, in Schmidt's translation, calls him "Child.") Petulant and stubborn, he masks his insecurity with machismo, his prurience with Puritan rigidity. And he is even more infuriated by Dionysos's toying with him than he is by the god's charismatic, ambiguous sexuality and his claim to divinity. It's like a game of rock-breaks-scissors; in this contest of adolescent-male bravado, god-breaks-king.

But if Pentheus's threatened masculinity is overemphasized, at the expense of his rashness, Dionysos is able to seduce him with it. Once he has the young king dazed and in a dress, he lures him to his death purring, "Only you are man enough for this." In this interpretation, Pentheus's masculine posturing, combined with his insecurity, becomes his tragic flaw. And just as his "manliness" makes his appearance in drag the more ludicrous, his boyishness -- his sweet, blurry surrender to Dionysos -- heightens the horror and poignance of his fate.

Moreover, it makes Dionysos's behavior, however seductive, the more chilling. A tender, gently mocking avenger he may be, but he's also a cruel and implacable one: an Old Testament God in fawn's clothing. Unfortunately, that is a point that's easy to miss in this production, which inexplicably truncates Dionysos's final, deus ex machina appearance, cutting Kadmos's crucial admonition that, though Dionysos was wronged by Pentheus and by Thebes, gods should not be merciless. In the words of the William Arrowsmith translation, they should be "exempt from human passion."

For the most part, the comic risks taken with Dionysos himself pay off. Edo Keane and the translation have moments of sly-boots humor that are too glib, but the god cuts an ironic, sexy, imperious, and decidedly Asian figure -- like the monarch out of The King and I, with superhuman powers. "I am the god who loves noise!" he bellows, and he delivers no little of it, in the form of thunderous voiceovers and loud bass vibrations that shake the theater if they don't exactly wreck the palace when they're supposed to.

Perhaps the greatest risk Rochaix takes is to preserve, amid his modernizing, the ritualistic integrity of the Greek Chorus, here an octet of red-dreadlocked women (led by Karen MacDonald) in gauzy dress and combat boots, two of whom serve "the King of Uproar" on various percussion instruments, from tribal drums to snare and ghostly xylophone. The Bacchae's Chorus is an unusual one in that the women are not neutral (i.e., audience-representative) figures but bacchants whose benign if intense worship of Dionysus stands in contrast to the more possessed doings of the Theban women up on Kitharon.

Schmidt has streamlined the choruses, giving them incisive rhythmic cadences that sometimes recall Vachel Lindsay's. On stage for most of the play, the thyrsos-brandishing Chorus is at times reduced to cliché'd posing, hissing, or gyrating. But its diction is precise. And if Rochaix, abetted by movement directors Amy Spencer and Richard Colton, hasn't fully solved the problem a Greek Chorus presents, he hasn't ducked it either. There are wonderful elements, among them the women's scraping a frenzied, metallic rhythm on the vine-bearing bars of Semele's tomb or taking over the porch of Pentheus's palace. Moreover, the Asian maenads serve as a mirror of Euripides's shifting attitude toward Dionysos, moving as they do from righteous indignation at Pentheus's blasphemies to something more sinister and vengeful. "What's the best thing/That the gods give to men?/A knife at the throat of someone we hate" is the disturbing refrain of one stasimon.

It can be a problem for modern audiences, accustomed to Pulp Fiction and the like, that all the gore of Greek tragedy is unleashed off stage. Both messengers in The Bacchae bear their eerie, bloody tidings well, Stephen Rowe bringing to the cowherd's prescient report of butchery on Kitharon a Shakespearean-rustic persona and Dmetrius Conley-Williams delivering his account of Pentheus's agony with appalled authority. But it takes the appearance of Randy Danson's giddy, blowzy Agave, her son Pentheus's bloody head on a stick, to bring the tragedy home. When, after some cream-licking bragging and a bit of disorientation, Danson's Agave realizes the carcass she holds is no lion's head but her son's, she goes rigid, then spastic, with horror. It's a goosebump-inducing moment that subsides into slacker grief, but it captures what Greek tragedy is about.

Rochaix skims over the redemptive follow-up, when Kadmos and Agave achieve some manner of wisdom (sophia, the Greeks called it, the acceptance of necessity, which teaches compassion) by piecing Pentheus back together. In this post-Vietnam rendition, his body parts are in three trashbags on a stretcher where Agave deposits the head almost as a matter of course. In a somewhat hoky bit, Dionysus appears on high behind a bank of microphones to issue his final, ruthless edict: "Too late. You should have known me sooner." What follows is some pretty impressive destruction. You think it's not nice to fool Mother Nature? Don't even think about fooling with Father Theater.

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